IN Interview: Ellen Freidin
FAIR DISTRICTS FLORIDA CHAIR OUT TO END GERRYMANDERING
By Rick Outzen
Of all the powers invested in the Florida Legislature, the power to draw the boundaries for the congressional and state legislative districts may be the most crucial in dictating which political party maintains control of the state.
“It’s the most political thing that happens,” said Ellen Freidin, campaign chair for Fair Districts Florida, a nonpartisan group that has placed two constitutional amendments (5 and 6) on the November ballot that could take partisan politics out of the redistricting process.
Freidin told the IN that lawmakers manipulate the districts for three reasons:
1) Help those in office stay in office,
2) Leave a House position then the Senate district drawn to help them, and
3) Help their political power maintain control.
To illustrate her point, she used a map of House District 78, a Democratic stronghold held by Kevin J. Rader (D-Delray Beach). The district is 55 percent registered Democrats, takes pieces of four counties and is divided by Lake Okeechobee. In the last three elections, with 420 state legislative seats up for grabs, only three incumbents were defeated.
Amendments 5 and 6 will end this type of gerrymandering. They state that districts may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts cannot be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous, compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.
“The purpose has been to establish rules where there haven’t been any rules,” said Freidin, “and keep communities together with districts that make sense.”
NOT THE FIRST EFFORT
Over the years, both parties have tried to change the redistricting process. In 1992, Republicans sued to have the Democratic-drawn maps thrown out, and Democrats returned the favor in 2002.
In 2005, Betty Castor, former Florida Secretary of Education, worked with Common Cause, a national government watchdog group, on an amendment that would have given the redistricting power to a nonpartisan, 15-member commission. However, the Florida Supreme Court pulled the amendment off the ballot, ruling that it dealt with too many subjects and could mislead voters because the appointed commission members would have partisan biases of their own.
Common Cause and out-of-state lawyers drafted that amendment, according to Freidin. To avoid the same issues again, Castor asked Freidin, a Miami attorney, and others to draft two new amendments.
“Here I am five years later, driving the train,” said Freidin, who cut her political teeth working on the Edmund Muskie campaign in 1972.
“We have an incredible coalition that has amassed nearly 1.75 million signatures to put this on the ballot,” said Freidin. To avoid a last minute challenge on the wording, Fair Districts Florida stopped its petition effort in 2007 and had the Florida Supreme Court approve the wording.
POISON PILL FAILED
State lawmakers have consistently opposed the Fair District amendments. Rep. Dorothy Hukill (R-Port Orange) and Senators Mike Haridopolos (R-Melbourne), Gary Siplin (D-Orlando) and Alfred Lawson (D-Tallahassee) sponsored their own redistricting amendment. They argued that they needed to clarify Amendments 5 and 6.
The lawmakers said their proposal called for barring them from favoring a political party or incumbent when redrawing legislative or congressional district lines. However, the proposal did allow lawmakers to continue basing districts on “communities of common interest.” In other words, the lawmakers could continue to find excuses to draw district lines as they pleased.
To further confuse the matter, the lawmakers manipulated the votes approving the amendment as that it would be Amendment 7 and be placed on the ballot after the Fair Districts Florida amendments.
“Amendment 7 was a poison pill amendment intended to confuse the voters,” said Freidin. “It was titled almost identically to ours and I think they believed that the people would vote ‘yes’ for ours and theirs, too, because the voters would believe it had the same intent.”
On Friday, May 21, Florida State Conference of the NAACP and the League of Women Voters filed a lawsuit to remove Amendment 7 from the statewide ballot. Deirdre Macnab, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida described the lawmakers’ proposal as “a trick amendment” and a “blatant effort to fool voters.”
On July 8, Circuit Judge James Shelfer ruled that Amendment 7 would not appear on Florida’s general election ballot. According to media reports, Judge Shelfer said, “I’m not the brightest light on the Christmas tree, but it took me three days…to get a handle on what this amendment does.” He added that the measure’s summary was a “failure to inform the public (and was) clearly and convincingly an attempt to hide the ball.”
Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court upheld Shelfer’s decision that the title of Amendment 7 was misleading. The court wrote, “This is a matter that should have been clearly and unambiguously stated in the ballot language. Failing this clear explanation, the voters will be unaware of the valuable right—the right to have districts composed of contiguous territory—which may be lost if the amendment (7) is adopted.”
Having gotten past the lawmakers’ “poison pill” and other court challenges to their amendments, does Freidin believe that the voters will pass Amendments 5 and 6?
“Yes, I think the people are fed up,” Freidin said as she headed to another rally for the amendments. “This is a unique opportunity to say ‘No, no, we’re not doing this anymore.’”
STANDARDS FOR LEGISLATURE TO FOLLOW IN LEGISLATIVE REDISTRICTING
BALLOT SUMMARY: Legislative districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.
STANDARDS FOR LEGISLATURE TO FOLLOW IN CONGRESSIONAL REDISTRICTING
BALLOT SUMMARY: Congressional districts or districting plans may not be drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent or political party. Districts shall not be drawn to deny racial or language minorities the equal opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice. Districts must be contiguous. Unless otherwise required, districts must be compact, as equal in population as feasible, and where feasible must make use of existing city, county and geographical boundaries.